Latour of the City

Among the stack of books in front of me right now, I’ve been learning a lot lately from Bruno Latour’s Politics of Nature. Here’s the money quote to which I keep returning:

As soon as we add to dinosaurs their paleontologists, to particles their accelerators, to ecosystems their monitoring instruments, to energy systems their standards and the hypothesis on the basis of which calculations are made, to the ozone holes their meteorologists and their chemists, we have already ceased entirely to speak of nature; instead, we are speaking of what is produced, constructed, decided, defined, in a learned City whose ecology is almost as complex as that of the world it is coming to know.

Latour gives me, avant ma lettre, another version of what I’ve been trying to say since the “Unicity” articles started coming out.  The division between “Nature” and “City” has been obliterated, both as an ontological matter-of-fact and, more significantly, as a conceptual axiom necessary to order the world.  Instead we have generated a planetary ecosystem that is entirely urban in nature (the “Urban Revolution” first recognized by Henri Lefebvre), an networked ecosystem of which “virtual” knowledge of the ecosystem is also a part. That is, knowledge is generated and transmitted via networks that are integral to the the ecosystem of the globe.

Latour is far more optimistic about this state of things than I am. His central point in Politics of Nature is that the political constitution of the world depends upon a schism between two geographies:  Pure Nature (“deep ecology”) on one side, the realm of all that is untouched and unsullied by human contact; and Human Society on the other, in which order only emerges by negating the force of Pure Nature. (These are my terms for his argument, btw, just to be clear.) The role of Science is to obtain knowledge of Pure Nature and bring that knowledge back to the Human Society, so that proper political decisions can be reached; Scientists hold a privileged position as mediators between the two realms. And Latour correctly recognizes that this model is no longer tenable in the age of globalization. As a corrective, he argues for a new collective assemblage of human and nonhuman actants capable of generating a properly democratic political ecology (or ecopolitics).

My own position is that the fusion of Ecosystem and City (ecology and politics) is part-and-parcel of a world order based on multinational corporate organization. This order cannot sustain (or does not wish to sustain) any sort of subjective agency, collective or otherwise.

But this is the start of a discussion with Latour, not the end of it.


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